Massacre at the hillfort: Mass grave that is challenging our beliefs about Iron Age Britain
By DAVID DERBYSHIRE FOR MAILONLINE
UPDATED: 13:07 GMT, 19 April 2011
UPDATED: 13:07 GMT, 19 April 2011
Archaeologists at the site in Derbyshire found four babies, a two-year-old, a teenage boy and three adults
The screams must have been unbearable.
High on the peaks of the Pennines, a terrified group of women, teenagers and children sat huddled in the half-finished ditches and walls of their hill fort, surrounded by gloating faces.
The men were missing, either killed in battle or taken to one side to be pressed into military service or sold for slaves by their captors.
But that left the less valuable women and children to be disposed of. Any pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears.
Well-preserved: The skeleton of a 15-year-old boy found at the fort
Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women, babies and children were stabbed or strangled, stripped of possessions and tossed into the ditch that encircled the fort.
Then their attackers toppled a 13ft-high limestone wall over their broken bodies, covering the mass grave with a litter of rocks and soil.
The full story of that gruesome day on Fin Cop in Derbyshire 2,400 years ago, and the reason why two Iron Age clans came to blows, will never be uncovered.
But the discovery of nine bodies thrown carelessly in a ditch is challenging some widely-held views about life in Iron Age Britain and whether life before the Romans was quite as peaceful as some academics like to claim.
It has become fashionable to interpret Iron Age hill forts, the 3,000 circles of banks and ditches found across the country, as farming settlements or status symbols - the prehistoric equivalent of Tudor castles and 19th century stately homes.
Challenging find: Archaeologists found nine skeletons at the fort in Fin Cop in Derbyshire and believe it is evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare
But the team who found the bodies believe they also served a brutal and more violent purpose at a time when Britain was divided into squabbling, warfaring tribal chiefdoms.
Dr Clive Waddington, of Archaeological Research Services which uncovered the bones, believes there could be 'dozens or hundreds' more bodies buried on the site.
Radiocarbon dating shows that the Fin cop hill fort was built around 400BC, but was destroyed before completion.
Dr Waddington's team, assisted by hundreds of volunteers and local schoolchildren, uncovered the bodies in two sections of a ditch, created as part of the fort's defences.
They included four babies, one who was unborn, a two-year-old toddler, a teenage boy and three adults, two of whom were definitely women and one whose sex is unknown.
The bodies had been thrown in the ditch and covered with rubble from a stone wall.
'We excavated ten metres but there is 400metres of ditch around the site, and the implication is that could be dozens - if not hundreds - of bodies there,' said Dr Waddington.
There were no personal possessions, suggesting the captors removed any valuables.
Dr Waddington believes they were massacred after the hill fort was attacked and captured by a rival chieftain.
There are clues that the hill fort was created in a hurry and that the victims knew they were at risk.
'The ditches and fort were never finished. They had started to make a second wall but that wasn't completed,' he said.
'You can tell that it was a hasty thing - they were trying to rapidly build it and it was not done on time.'
Ongoing dig: Radiocarbon dating shows that the Fin cop hill fort was built around 400BC, but was destroyed before completion
Animal bones found in the ditch show that the fort's inhabitants farmed cattle and pigs and kept horses
An osteoarchaeologist checks the skull of a 15-year-old male
Dr Waddington said archaeologists have increasingly interpreted hill forts as status symbols, not military defences.
'But we know from Classical sources that the British were warlike,' he said.
First century accounts reveal that Britain was famed for its export of corn, dogs and slaves.
'It's true that some of the hill forts don't make sense as strongholds because they are not built at the top of hills, or because they are overlooked. But that probably means there is truth in both views.
'The early castles of the 11th and 12th centuries were strongholds, but the later Tudor ones, after the invention of gunpowder, were statements of status. The same is likely to be true of the Iron Age.'
Animal bones in the ditch show they farmed cattle and pigs and kept horses.
The Fin Cop fort was probably part of a chain of related communities in the Peak District.
The lack of any skeletons at other hill forts may be due to geology.
Bones decay slowly at Fin Cop because the soil is alkaline.
LIFE IN IRON AGE BRITAIN
The inhabitants of Iron Age Britain had a reputation across Europe for their love of war - and their export of slaves.
By the fourth century BC, the Ancient Britons had become skilled farmers and metal workers, who had organised themselves into kingdoms the size of modern day counties.
Britain was a land of small villages, farms and giant hill forts - hill tops fortified by banks, ditches and wooden fences.
More than 3,000 have been found from tiny enclosures to massive monuments like Old Oswestry in Shropshire.
Most people were farmers, living in family roundhouses made from wood, mud and thatch and heated with central open fires.
Smoke from the fires floated upwards, passing through the thatch where meats were hung. Most grew barley and wheat and kept pigs, sheep and cattle.
They used hand-turned millstones to grind cereals into flour, and were skilled metal workers - using iron to make nails, knives, ploughs, files and sickles, and bronze and gold for jewellery.
They used spindles to spin wool, and looms to weave it into cloth. They made baskets, used potters wheels and drove chariots.
The Romans described how Ancient Britons worshipped a range of gods - from gods of fertility and the earth, to gods of war and the sky. They also claimed the Britons were a warlike people - and that slavery was a major export by the first century BC.
Romans also said humans were sacrificed to the gods, but more often animals were ritually slaughtered.
The Romans wrote how the priests of Iron Age Briton were the druids - an elite with considerable powers and influence.